Robert Schumann was a true Romantic. The originality of his work pushed at emotional, structural, and philosophical boundaries. The family into which Schumann was born was literary rather than musical, his father a publisher and bookseller. Schumann himself was a fine writer, and he was torn at first over whether to devote himself to words or music. Although he opted for music, he was a perceptive critic and he founded and edited a music magazine, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In it, he acclaimed the music of Berlioz, Chopin and, much later, the young Brahms.
He first went to Leipzig to study law, following the instructions of his late father's will, but in defiance, switched to piano lessons with the well-known pedagogue, Friedrich Wieck, who was rearing his daughter Clara as a child prodigy pianist. As Clara grew from little girl to young woman, she and Schumann fell deeply in love, but Wieck, who had come to regard him as a dissolute wastrel, was furious at the idea that they might marry. Schumann had meanwhile devoted himself to composition, but drank heavily, had several other love affairs, and showed signs of mental instability. He had also contracted syphilis and is said to have injured his hand irrevocably while using a contraption to strengthen his fourth finger. Other theories suggest, however, that his incapacity may have been down to mercury poisoning during treatment for syphilis. Forcibly separated by Wieck, however, Schumann and Clara communicated through music. Schumann's works are full of musical ciphers, employing notes as letters and motifs as symbols: a ‘Clara’ motif and a quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte are just two examples. He also borrowed heavily from Clara's own compositions, as if to bind the two of them together in music. Eventually the young couple took Wieck to court and won the right to marry, which they did on Clara's birthday in 1840.
Schumann tended to concentrate on one genre at a time, exhausting the possibilities of each one before moving on to the next. As a pianist himself, however, he wrote a vast quantity of piano music over the course of his career and he devoted the year of 1840 almost exclusively to songs. His song cycles included Frauenliebe und -leben, in which the heroine experiences love, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood – an all-too-prophetic vision, as it turned out. The songs built not only on Schumann's own use of recurring motifs, but also on the work of Schubert, whose music he adored. Soon after Schubert's death, he visited his brother Ferdinand and unearthed a range of music, including the manuscript of the "Great" Ninth Symphony, which had never been performed until Schumann persuaded his friend, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, to conduct it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Schumann next turned his attention to chamber music and between the years 1841 and 1842, he wrote three string quartets, a piano quartet, and a piano quintet. As time went on, and out of financial necessity to raise his seven children, Schumann attempted larger forms – choral works, the opera Genoveva and four symphonies.
In 1853, the Schumanns met Johannes Brahms, carrying an introduction from a mutual friend, the prodigiously gifted young violinist Joseph Joachim. Both Robert and Clara Schumann were bowled over by Brahms and his music. Brahms, in turn, became devoted to both of them, and fell desperately in love with Clara. Five months later, Schumann suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine during the town carnival. On his own request, he was sent to a mental hospital at Endenich, near Bonn, where Clara was forbidden to visit. He spent the remainder of his life in the asylum, writing music that he believed was dictated to him by angels. Despite his short life, Schumann's influence extended decades into the future. His music's impact on Brahms, Liszt, Wagner, Elgar and Fauré – and beyond – is immeasurable and he remains among the best-loved of all 19th-century composers.